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The signs are clear: the architectural, engineering and construction industries are at a tipping point with regards to the adoption of virtual and augmented reality technology and now is the time to start paying attention.

There is an enormous opportunity for construction and design professionals to leverage VR/AR technologies. These technologies are creating a new generation of architects and designers and it is clear a change is happening. As Tony Parisi, the global head of AR and VR andd innovation at Unity Technologies, a popular game engine, told The New York Times, “I think we’ll see pervasive use of real-time 3D in the building industry. Think about what you can save on re-dos alone.”

The AEC industry until recently has mainly used AR/VR technology in marketing applications. Being able to virtually tour existing spaces remotely has always been a clear “low hanging fruit” industry use case. It has become even more important and widely adopted as the work force has shifted to working remote with 360-degree cameras being short supply for months. The roll out of inexpensive and simple to use 360-degree cameras has made the remote understanding of a space viable for even the most technologically challenged individuals and as more people directly witness the benefits, the walls of adoption will continue to crumble. 

In parallel, architectural and interior design groups have slowly started to realize the potential for virtual technology and many are adopting it into their preliminary design work flows. There is no denying the value in being able to virtually tour a space prior to it being built. Specifically, being able to understand size and scale is a capability that did not exist in traditional 2D design tools and renderings. Enabled by inexpensive consumer VR headset technology and easy to use, drag and drop (CADD to VR) software solutions, the understanding of a space is a huge value add to the design process and impacts the entire project team. This adoption will continue to increase as the software and hardware solutions improve and some of the biggest players in the technology industry are focused on it. 

Large technology organizations such as Epic’s Unreal Engine, which have historically made their fortune in the gaming industry, (e.g. Fortnite made $1.8 billion in 2019) see the potential and are breaking out of their comfort zone to create architectural visualization tools. They recently launched a software solution called Twinmotion, which will greatly improve and simplify the visualization process for designers. 

However, the next stage in industry adoption will come from the construction sector. AR/VR fundamentally is a visual tool and it is just a matter of time before a new tool is created that will enable construction projects to be built faster and safer. When this occurs, adoption will explode because the construction teams will be able to measure a clear return on investment. 

The AEC industry has already been headed in this direction for some time. On a foundational level, the first critical component is that AR and VR will need three-dimensional data. If this data had to be recreated by the construction teams, adoption would take longer. Fortunately, 3D architectural design files as well as BIM models are now relatively standard for the industry. When combined with LIDAR scanning of existing facilities, construction professionals will have an end to end solution for capturing and placing visual information in the field. 

The final required component for jobsite integration is proper augmented reality wearable hardware. Currently, there are several inexpensive virtual reality headsets out on the market; however, they are not viable on a jobsite for the simple fact that workers need to see their environment. 

Augmented reality headsets allow professionals to view their surrounding and then have digital information overlaid. This is where the real value happens. Augmented reality headsets are much younger in their evolution; however the large technology companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google all believe AR wearables are the next key device in mobile technology evolution. There are a few large and expensive prototypes available, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens, but everyone is keeping an eye on Apple’s next move. Rumors say Apple’s AR headset will be launched in the next year and when that happens, a new chapter in mobile technology will begin.

The design process has successfully evolved from 2D paper blueprints to 3D CADD designs and the next step will be to VR/AR. Technology adoption in the AEC field is always slower than anticipated however, all of the key pieces are in place. Now is the time to start experimenting. 

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